A 'Mother' is mourned by the queer New Yorkers she left behind

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Friday, April 12, 2024

A 'Mother' is mourned by the queer New Yorkers she left behind
Liaam Winslet speaks at the memorial for the transgender activist Cecilia Gentili at Judson Memorial Church, in New York, Feb. 7, 2024. Hundreds gathered at the Greenwich Village church to pay their respects to Gentili, who died on Tuesday, Feb. 6, at 52. (Sarah Blesener/The New York Times)

by Frank Rojas

NEW YORK, NY.- The strumming of a Spanish guitar and the voices of Eydie Gormé and Los Panchos echoed throughout the hall as “Sabor a Mí” played on a loudspeaker. Hundreds of mourners made their way into Judson Memorial Church, near Washington Square Park in Manhattan.

Inside the sanctuary, all attention was front and center on an ofrenda, or altar, that was adorned with flowers and flickering votive candles. About a dozen portraits of the same women, activist Cecilia Gentili, smiled out on the crowd.

While the loss of Gentili, who died Feb. 6 at 52, could be felt throughout the crowded church, her impact reached far beyond its doors.

“Cecilia’s my mother,” said Oscar Díaz, an artist in Queens. “She’s an icon. She’s a legend in the trans, undocumented and sex-work community.”

In recent years, Gentili had branched out from her main calling: publishing a memoir, starring in a one-woman show and even appearing in several episodes of Ryan Murphy’s “Pose.” But on Wednesday night, she was remembered chiefly for her advocacy on behalf of trans people, immigrants in the country without legal status and others living on the margins.

She was a part of many LGBTQ organizations and went on to start two of her own, Decrim NY, which seeks to decriminalize prostitution, and Trans Equity Consulting, a consulting agency for transgender people.

Many who worked alongside Gentili were in attendance at the memorial Wednesday, including Ceyenne Doroshow, the founder and executive director of GLITS, an organization dedicated to housing and health care for transgender people.

“She’s the political Celia Cruz to this community,” said Doroshow, who was wearing a long, baby blue dress with a black fur hat. “She’s spicy, doesn’t really like politicians, but she fights for our rights.”

The memorial was organized by Qween Jean, the founder of Black Trans Liberation and a close friend of Gentili’s. She opened the service with a moment of silence followed by a guided breathing meditation. Sobs could be heard as those in attendance closed their eyes and bowed their heads.

Dressed in all black, Qween Jean exuded tranquility as she navigated the crowd of mourners, sharing memories of Gentili — pausing every so often to comfort those who were overcome with grief, letting out loud cries.

“I saw her and I felt home,” Qween Jean said, referring to their kinship as trans women of color.

That sense of belonging was what brought Chiquitita, a model and drag artist, to the service. She first met Gentili, whom she called her mother, a few years ago while performing in drag.

“Yesterday was a very hard day for me,” Chiquitita said. “But being here and being able to shed some tears with so many people that I love and met through Cecilia is an honor.”

As tributes continued in front of the adorned altar, the church remained consistently crammed with people standing, sitting on chairs, pressing into the limited space in the balcony and making themselves as comfortable as they could on the floor. Some stole outside for a quick smoke break, or to shed some tears in the February night air.

Despite the somber occasion, there were still some joyful moments shared among the mourners. A few paid their respects through performances. Qween Jean honored Gentili’s legacy with a dance to the song “Never Enough” from the 2017 film “The Greatest Showman.”

Gia Love, a Brooklyn model, lip-synced Adele’s “When We Were Young.” She mouthed the lyrics as she stood tall and extended her arms, directing her performance to Gentili’s portraits on the altar.

Love first met Gentili at an inclusive health care clinic in 2012 when she was seeking gender-affirming care. Gentili, she said, “guided me from that moment to now.”

“Who you see in front of you, all that I have accomplished, has been under Cecilia’s tutelage,” she said.

“Tonight is unreal — this is fresh,” she said, wearing a pink knitted beanie with a black-and-white cloth underneath as a veil. She laughed when describing Gentili as “inappropriate, radical and having the biggest heart.”

Liaam Winslet, the executive director of an organization seeking to broaden access to health care, was brought to tears on the microphone before the crowd applauded for her. She said Gentili stepped up as a role model after her previous mentor, transgender activist Lorena Borjas, died from complications of COVID-19 in 2020.

“Cecilia gave hope to the youth, trans and Latinx communities,” Winslet said in Spanish, patting her tears with a tissue. “She showed us that we are strong, and that we can accomplish many things together.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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